Education

Cedar Rapids Jefferson's decathlon team takes state title for the 20th year in a row

'There are very few public schools that have reached the level of recognition we have'

Jefferson High Schools' decathlon team at the state competition in Waterloo. The team has won the state title for 20 con
Jefferson High Schools’ decathlon team at the state competition in Waterloo. The team has won the state title for 20 consecutive years. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Darrow)

CEDAR RAPIDS — They’ve won the state championship 20 years in a row and have qualified for the national competition more times than any other school in the nation.

Still, Jefferson High School’s Academic Decathlon team sometimes is confused for a track team.

For the 12 students on the Cedar Rapids high school’s legendary team — who aced tests, essays and speeches after studying 1,000 pages of medical history this year — taking state this month was more of a relief than a surprise.

“If we didn’t win, that would have been really hard,” said Kenzie Varo, 18, who started preparing for the weekend competition with her teammates in June.

They have little time to relax before a trip to Anchorage, Alaska, for the United States Academic Decathlon National Finals in late April — barring cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic — and are planning 12- to 24-hour “studyathons” to get ready.

Kevin Darrow, who has coached the team for seven years — and, as a student, was on Jefferson’s 1992 decathlon team under coach John Wojtowicz — said he’s proud of the team’s record-breaking efforts.

“That’s over some of the best prep schools in the nation,” he said of the school’s national qualifier record. “It’s not sour grapes at all, but we do compete against a lot of charter schools, we compete against a lot of magnet and private schools. There are very few public schools that have reached the level of recognition we have.”

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It’s contrary to the blue-collar reputation the high school has had since before he was a student, Darrow said.

“Jefferson kids want to work,” he said. “But they want to work with a purpose.”

For students in decathlon, that purpose is a promise of mastering their personal study strategies. It’s a skill that often comes with increased scores on college entrance exams like the ACT and a deep preparation for postsecondary education.

“Next year, I’m going to get a text from one of the kids, and they’re going to be sitting in their freshman biology class in college,” Darrow said. “They’re going to text me a picture of their biology book all highlighted and their flashcards. They’ve learned what works best for them.”

Until then, Varo, who plans to go to the University of Iowa, asked Darrow if they could gloat a little over their 20-year winning streak.

“Can we make,” she asked, “‘back to back to back to back to back to back to back ...’ shirts?”

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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